In case you haven't heard, the State of Connecticut has struggled to negotiate its budget during the past few months. In fact, the process has resembled a can of worms being shot from a loose cannon in a sausage factory.
But no one knew that this street brawl would provide a spring torrent of delightful mixed metaphors -- torturous figures of...Read more
Why do we tell kids to "pipe down"? Why do we say food is "piping hot"? Why do we call fantasies "pipe dreams"?
Discovering the origins of these "pipe" terms takes us on a quirky voyage from oceans to ovens to opium ...
--Pipe Down: On old sailing ships, the "boatswain" (or "bosun") used a small, whistle-like pipe to communicate orders to ...Read more
Q: I'm trying to figure out whether the preposition "from" is needed after the verb "forbear." Is it "he will forbear from growling at him," or "he will forbear growling at him"? -- Peter Hufstader, Avon, Conn.
A: There's no need for growling here, for this is one of those delightful situations in which either choice is correct. So we can say...Read more
Q: Is this a run-on sentence?: "The thing I liked about Andy Rooney is that he didn't just play a curmudgeon on television, he was one." -- Shelley Cetel, West Hartford, Conn.
A: Grammatical purists would call this a "comma splice" -- a comma erroneously used to join or "splice" two independent clauses. They would replace the comma with a ...Read more
"Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton would likely be heavily engaged in reigning in Wall Street."
When I encountered that sentence in a newspaper story, I conjured the absurd vision of Sanders and Clinton wearing crowns while ringing the opening bell on the New York Stock Exchange.
The intended verb, of course, is "reining in," meaning "...Read more
Today, some random notes from the Word Front ...
--"Conversation" sensation: People don't discuss or debate a topic anymore; they have a "conversation." They "start the conversation." They "frame the conversation." They "join the conversation." And if they're open to discussion, they're "happy to have that conversation." I'd be happy to have ...Read more
Q: In a recent newspaper article on a criminal case involving an issue of missing records, a judge is quoted thus: "But in this case, the trout is just not in the milk. The recordings are just not in the files." The expression "the trout is just not in the milk" is new to me. Any notion of the underlying reason for this expression?" -- Tom ...Read more
Q: How did the high-heeled shoe for ladies become known as a "pump"? -- Melanie via email
A: Asking me about a type of women's shoe is like asking a Muscovite about surfboards. True fact: Until I was around 40 years old, I didn't know the difference between a dress and a skirt. And women's shoes? Let's put it this way, I'm no Carrie Bradshaw....Read more
A Song ApartJeffrey H. Baer
A SONG APART revolves around Shannon Kistler, a teenaged pop singer, and Kevin Derow, her 19-year-old biggest fan. They met and fall in love unexpectedly while wishing society would accept them as they are. Then they realize they don’t need anyone else’s approval ...
Why do we say that someone with well-toned muscles is "ripped"?
Could it be a reference to the ripped T-shirt of the muscular Marlon Brando in "A Streetcar Named Desire"? A variation of "rippled" (because a six-pack of abdominal muscles has a rippled appearance)? An allusion to "Ripped" Van Winkle, who reportedly did ab crunches during his 20...Read more
Q: I pronounce the word "forte," meaning "personal strength or talent," as "fort," not "FOR-tay," and I am criticized for this. What's the real deal on this? -- Jean Tintle, Whiting, N.J.
A: The easy answer is that you're correct and the criticizers are wrong. But the real deal is a little bit more complicated.
The "forte" meaning "strength"...Read more
When a monster approaches, people are likely to yell, "Watch out!" And it's this notion of a warning that gave us the word "monster."
In Latin, the verb "monere" meant "to warn," so its noun form, "monstrum," meant "an evil omen." "Monstrum" eventually became "monstre" in Middle English and "monster" in modern English.
"Monster" originally ...Read more
I've received a flurry of letters and emails in response to two recent columns, so I wanted to share some of these snowflakes with you. (Not to imply that any of my readers are flaky, of course.)
--Advanced Place-'meant' -- I recently explained how a criminal was identified because his ransom note described the swath of grass between the ...Read more
"Police Search for Man in Wal-Mart Hidden Camera Case"
When Linda Carlson of Middletown, Conn., sent me this newspaper headline, she wrote, "I read several times before I realized that it wasn't about a very large camera case or a very tiny man."
When newspaper editors compress a detailed and sometimes complicated news story down into a few ...Read more